Luke Painter’s current exhibition at LE Gallery in Toronto, entitled “Anterior,” features large India-ink drawings that might suggest why Victorian art critic John Ruskin and textile designer William Morris were so disparaging of industrialization’s inclination to barren surfaces. Many of the works in this show are influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, a tradition that dovetails with the artist’s tendency towards highly detailed and laborious drawing techniques. However, since Painter does look to other more recent influences, this exhibition could be viewed as a study of the broader scope of ornamental art history, and the painstaking hours of production as an act of visual research.
Stepping into the gallery evokes a strange sense of dislocation; the architectural structures and latticeworks of flora feel as familiar as art history–class slides, but the images that contain them seem suspended in some sort of surrealist dreamscape. While at first glance all the works appear to be referencing pre-modern eras of art history, they communally reflect one age-old concern: pattern making. Painter’s interest in patterning—and its relation to the history of ornamentation—is rooted in ambiguous impulses. The Arts and Crafts, or sometimes gothic, patterns he recreates do not have clear symbolic meanings.
In Crystal Palace Warehouse, Painter uses the skeleton of the now-defunct Crystal Palace in London (which was designed by Joseph Paxton to host the Great Exhibition of 1851) to imagine a ghostly and slightly ominous greenhouse. In addition to being a result of his affection for patterning and architectural grandeur, Painter’s techniques also draw upon of-the-moment artistic resources like Google 3D Warehouse, from which he pulled images as references for the plants, and other 3D software, which he uses to plan these intensely detailed images.
The Arch of William Morris also shows Painter’s unique blending of historical periods. This image appears to retain symbolist abstruseness while playfully paying homage to Morris’ famous textile patterns. The clean lines and meticulous inking of the individual green leaves covering the structure display a hyperreality that is created only when the artist decides to forgo depth-of-field techniques—something that the pre-Raphaelites and art-nouveau painters favoured as well.
Gothic Cathedral with Starry Night Nailpolish, a comparatively small drawing, is another work that melds architectural history and postmodern concerns; here, Painter couples the lofty gothic grandeur of a cathedral with a reference to contemporary fashion—nail polish in a trendy dark colour, a form of personal ornamentation.
Saarinen House, a huge drawing, stands as an ode to Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, a great advocate of the spirit of the Arts and Craft movement. What the artist depicts here is the home that Saarinen designed and furnished with those sensibilities in mind. Saarinen House can only be fully appreciated when standing before it in the gallery space, with the exaggerated attention to detail throughout the entire surface of the drawing speaking volumes about Painter’s concerns for the handmade.